The outcome of Iran’s presidential elections was not a surprise, with hardline candidate Ebrahim Raisi being duly elected in last week’s elections and delivering control over all the agencies of the state to hardliners.
However, his victory was marred by the lowest turnout in a presidential poll since the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran, with more than half of voters staying at home.
The first speech by the president-elect also gave an indication of the challenges ahead, as a hardliner takes over the presidential office in Iran after eight years under former president Hassan Rouhani’s government.
Raisi staked out a hardline position, rebuffing the idea of negotiations on Tehran’s ballistic-missile programme and support for regional militias and insisting that its support for militant groups across the region and the development of the missile programme was “not negotiable.”
He also demanded an end to the US sanctions against Iran and said his administration would not negotiate just for the sake of negotiation. However, Raisi indicated that he would preserve any nuclear deal struck with the world powers in the current negotiations in Vienna.
The president-elect’s tough talk represents a challenge to the Western powers, especially as the nuclear negotiations are at a crucial stage with many issues still unresolved.
“Even if his speech was for domestic consumption and to please the hardliners, it was not useful,” one European diplomat familiar with the talks told Al-Ahram Weekly.
“Iran needs to revive the nuclear deal, and it needs the sanctions to be lifted. Iran is a country with mounting economic problems. These hardline positions will not serve the agenda of the elected president, who was elected on a manifesto that includes returning to the nuclear agreement, lifting the sanctions and improving the economy,” he said.
Iran’s economy plunged into deep recession after former US president Donald Trump withdrew from the nuclear accord with Iran and imposed sanctions on the Islamic Republic.
The punitive measures crippled Iran’s ability to export oil, a key source of hard currency, and pushed inflation above 46 per cent as the rial plummeted. The recession in Iran has been exacerbated by the coronavirus crisis.
Analysts say that sanctions relief will be critical to Raisi’s hopes of easing the economic pressure on the Iranian public.
Many European officials will be watching Raisi closely when he takes office in August. He is not Muhammad Khatami or Hassan Rouhani, two moderate Iranian presidents who enjoyed good reputations and working relationships with European officials. As a result, there will be a need for confidence-building between the West and the new Iranian president and his team.
But although Iran’s new president is a conservative, he is also a pragmatic politician. Some Western officials hope that Raisi could turn out to be like late Iranian president Hashemi Rafsanjani, who was a conservative president who managed to establish a working relationship with Iran’s neighbours and world powers.
Above all, Raisi has advantages that might serve him well. He enjoys a close relationship with Iranian supreme leader Ali Khamenei, and he is close to the leadership of the powerful Iranian Revolutionary Guards. Any deals or regional arrangements he reaches with world powers in the coming months about the Iranian nuclear programme or Iran’s regional activities will thus be supported by the country’s most important agencies.
In short, the president-elect will have support from powerful figures, unlike Rouhani, especially during his second term.
Signalling his different approach from Rouhani, Raisi said his government would demand the lifting of the sanctions. “It was the US that violated the JCPOA,” Raisi said, referring to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the nuclear agreement with Iran.
“I tell the US, it was you who were committed to removing the sanctions, and you did not. Go back and implement your commitments,” Raisi said. “Our foreign policy does not start with the JCPOA and does not end with the JCPOA,” he added.
The US has been an observer at the Vienna talks, but it is not directly involved.
When asked if his government would be willing to hold direct negotiations with the Biden administration, Raisi did not give an explicit answer, instead saying that “my serious suggestion to the US... is to show honesty by lifting the sanctions.”
Raisi told reporters at his first press conference since his victory in the elections last week that “we will support any negotiations that meet our national interests. But we will not tie the economic situation and people’s livelihoods to these talks... We will not let the talks be protracted.” But he suggested that his government would be committed to a negotiated accord.
While internal challenges will be Raisi’s priority, the nuclear negotiations are the priority for the European countries, the US and Russia. The prospect of an agreement hangs in the balance after another round of talks ended with unresolved issues this week.
The major powers convened again in Vienna on Sunday in a bid to revive the nuclear deal. Several diplomats involved in the talks said they had made progress and that the results needed to be approved by their respective governments.
European diplomats have voiced concerns about how close the negotiators are to the 24 June expiry date for a separate nuclear-inspections pact between Iran and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). While the EU expects an extension, this is still to be confirmed.
The diplomats have also warned that Rouhani’s exit in August will complicate the negotiations. European Union Foreign Policy Chief Josep Borrell said he hoped the election of the new Iranian president would not be an obstacle to reaching a deal in Vienna.
“We are very close. We have been working for two months,” Borrell told reporters during a visit to the Lebanese capital Beirut. “We have invested a lot of political capital in that. So, I hope the results of the elections are not going to be the last obstacle that will ruin the negotiation process.”
Iranian diplomats, including Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif insist they have the same negotiating mandate as before the elections and that a deal could be reached before Raisi takes power in August since none of the remaining obstacles are insurmountable.
Top Russian representative Mikhail Ulyanov wrote in a tweet that members of the JCPOA “will decide on the way ahead at the Vienna talks. An agreement on the restoration of the nuclear deal is within reach but is not finalised yet.”
Iran’s deputy foreign minister for political affairs said that almost all the JCPOA agreement documents had been negotiated and that the diplomats involved would shortly return to their home countries for further consultations with their governments and final decision-making.
“We are now in a situation where we think almost all the agreement documents are ready,” Seyyed Abbas Araghchi said in Vienna, according to the semi-official Iranian news agency Mehr.
“Of the main issues that remain disputed, some have been resolved, and some remain, but it has taken on a very precise form, and it is quite clear what the dimensions of these disputes are,” he added.
Some Western diplomats claim Iran has been stalling in the months-long talks to ensure the outgoing Iranian government could not claim the credit for restoring the deal and lifting the US sanctions.
But others claim that the same difficult issues remain unresolved, including how the US can guarantee it will not leave the deal again, how Iran handles the knowledge and assets it has developed while in breach of the deal’s terms, whether the hardline Iranian parliament can delay Iran complying with the deal’s terms until it is satisfied that the US sanctions have been lifted, and the precise basket of US sanctions that could be lifted.
Thus, although Raisi wants to give priority to internal challenges, foremost among which being Iran’s crumbling economy, confronting Covid-19 and widespread corruption, the issue that will take priority over the first few months of his presidency is the nuclear deal and relations with the US and European powers.
The stakes are high because if he fails to revive the nuclear deal and lift the sanctions, relations between Tehran and the West will deteriorate further, threatening his ability to deliver on his agenda. In the absence of the sanctions being lifted, conditions in Iran will continue to deteriorate and become a threat to the country’s new president.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 24 June, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly